May's Failure, Corbyn's Achievement

Glen Newey

Well, that came as a surprise, certainly to me. My meticulously calibrated model proved almost as bad at gauging public opinion as Theresa May. Yesterday in Edinburgh I dropped into Ladbrokes on Nicolson Street. There were large pictures of Corbyn and May in the window; all the punters inside were scanning the racing pages. I looked at the prices on the betting machine and the shortest odds (10/3) were on the Tories’ getting 351 to 375 seats. I thought better of putting a tenner on.

The extent of May’s failure can hardly be exaggerated. A purely opportunistic election has blown up in her face. She has managed to lose seats like Canterbury which previously had a 10,000 majority. She had allowed her head to be turned by polls that suggested the Tories were 20 per cent ahead of Labour. Having taken the electorate for granted, she then conducted a disastrous campaign. The one big policy idea in the manifesto, the dementia tax, managed to leave people thinking that she planned to grab their homes to pay for their care. She failed, into the bargain, to capitalise on the one big unpredictable of the campaign, namely the atrocities in London and Manchester, which should have played to the Tories’ perceived strengths. She’s ended up squandering the narrow majority they had in the last parliament.

May’s failure of judgment is egregious. She called the election to get a mandate that would supposedly strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations and has contrived the precise opposite. May and Lynton Crosby’s strategy relied on her being a one-trick pony – one which, however stolid, was at least sturdy enough to be relied on to carry the nation towards Brexit, talks on which (as May kept saying in the campaign) start in ten days’ days. Now the pony remains only to be canned and fed to the dogs.

May has said that she is going on. It is no longer her call: over the weekend, pressure will build for her to go – not least because there may well be another election before long and it is unimaginable that she would be entrusted with leading the party into it. In her victory-defeat speech in Maidenhead, May was still banging on about stability. Her position is vastly weakened, and not only with her own party. Without the 12 Tory gains in Scotland her position would be still worse, and those gains owe very little to May. More important, her authority to conduct the Brexit negotiations is shot, as the EU’s people will have already noticed.

By the same token, Corbyn and Labour’s achievement is immense. Labour is currently projected to win 40 per cent of the vote, a full twelve per cent higher than its share in the 2015 election under Ed Miliband, and the same as when Blair won in 2001, and higher than 2005. So much for Corbyn’s being unelectable. He’s weathered personal vilification and a sustained campaign of sabotage within the parliamentary party. This is the death-rattle of new Labour. When the election was called and it seemed clear that the Tories would romp home Peter Mandelson went on Newsnight to say that Corbyn would have to own the result. Blairites will have to suck it up.

Brexit never really got started as a campaign issue. Labour’s performance is partly the result of taking a good many votes, though fewer than the Tories, from Ukip’s collapse. Corbyn’s strategy of parking the issue, to avoid alienating either Labour's working-class Leave voters or middle-class Remain supporters, has largely worked. Despite some early responses to the results, there is not much cheer in them for Remainers. England and Wales have been dominated by the two main parties, both of which endorse Brexit. Even in strongly pro-Remain Scotland, the SNP shed seats to the Tories, whose campaign solely against a second independence referendum paid off; even beleaguered Scottish Labour managed a net gain of five seats. The substantive issue that played well for Labour was resistance to austerity, with a credible plan based on modest deficit finance.

In the shorter term, the Tories will presumably form a coalition with the DUP as a regressive alliance with about 328 seats. Since Sinn Féin (with 7 MPs) don’t take their seats, the effective majority line is likely to be 322. When May goes, various candidates will pitch themselves forward – with, all the while, the EU awaiting the start of the Brexit negotiations and another likely election in the offing. Before that the country will find out what rough beast – probably Boris Johnson – is slouching towards Brexit to be born.


  • 9 June 2017 at 9:03am
    Chris Couch says:
    This was a wonderful night for the British left. Although we haven't won, the Tories have lost. They came out thinking they would wipe us out and they've ended up worse off than how they started; they walked into the casino with three grand thinking they knew a safe bet but left with only a few quid.

    A lot of Tories and their various sympathisers have been harping on about Labour's pledge to abolish tuition fees: the argument, implicitly, seems to be that such a giveaway is what brought young voters out and that is what led to them falling well short of expectations. That is, of course, pure supposition (disregarding the question of whether there really was a dramatic increase in youth turnout, it is to assume that everyone aged 18-24 turned out to vote for one reason and one reason alone). My thought is that the Tories are spinning this, along with the line that it is unafforadable, so that they look a safer pair of hands to control the economy.

    The big question now is 'What do Labour do?' I might be spinning a little, but I get the sense there is some feeling among the grassroots that if the party grandees (and sympathetic media!) had got behind Corbyn from the outset we might be in a better position. In terms of vote share, Corbyn has done pretty well (I'm not a stats man unfortunately!) He's got a bit of baggage and he is not a young man (68) but I've long thought he has the right ideas for the party and for a left-wing opposition more generally. The Blairites need to accept after this that a populist resurgence of the left does not mean a re-run of the eighties, but it does mean accepting New Labour is now Old Labour.

  • 9 June 2017 at 9:04am
    streetsj says:
    Completely agree with everything about May. But you can't say she's done badly and Corbyn well based on the number of votes cast. May (well the Conservatives) polled as big a share as Blair/Thatcher in their prime.
    Corbyn's "success" may well prove disastrous as it is likely to embolden the Left (as in left left) and come the second general election (October?) they will reveal more of their true colours against a much more competent Conservative campaign.
    Or maybe not.

    • 9 June 2017 at 9:38am
      Chris Couch says: @ streetsj
      Whether she has done well or badly will not be determined by the number of votes cast for her party but on the conditions which led to her declaring this election and how well her party has done in relation to those conditions. To deny that is to deny political reality.

      If the Tory party were already in power, and were set to be in power for three more years, why on earth would they, of their own volition, call for a general election? I doubt that philosophical concerns about having a leader elected by the public played a part (although, of course, no one doubts that the Conservative party do have grave concerns about issues of constitutional law). Instead, it seems to me that May's idea, quite evidently, was to secure dominance for the Tory party in British politics by claiming a vast number of Labour seats when they were perceived to be at their weakest.

      She has failed - dramatically - in this task. The Tory party really believed they were so beloved by the country that their pestilent offers would convince enough of a mythical yeomanry to vote for them. The Labour party, quite sensibly, offered a vision less grim. As for true colours, I am not so sure; although I often here arguments to the contrary, I get the distinct feeling the left wants power.

    • 9 June 2017 at 9:47am
      Chris Couch says: @ Chris Couch
      *I often hear

      (I am paranoid about this stuff and there is no edit function!)

    • 9 June 2017 at 10:24am
      manchegauche says: @ streetsj
      Blimey - at least let us get some sleep before you Blairites start trying to spin Labour's achievement last night as maybe 'disastrous'.

      First, it's a bit late to start complaining that the %'s and the seats don't square up. PR as a force in UK politics is dead dead dead. Like May.

      Second, would you be saying - if Corbyn had only managed 150 - seats that this disaster may prove beneficial? Actually, you people probably would wouldn't you. Why don't you just join the Lib Dems and have done then?

      Certainly, there'll be a more competent Tory campaign in October. But they'd be hard pushed to roll out an effort worse than this one. Plus, how can you be sure that 'revealing more of their true colours' won't, in fact, gain them even more votes?

      Basically, your disappointed because New Labour politics was a failure and rather than your opponents on the benches behind you winning, you'd sooner have seen May romp home. Try getting behind Corbyn now instead eh?

      Because it's your politics that's now in the, er, Cor-bin of history. Geddit?

    • 9 June 2017 at 11:19am
      streetsj says: @ Chris Couch
      As I said, I completely agree about May. She has failed miserably and deserved to fail miserably. What I said was that you couldn't argue that Corbyn had been successful on the basis of his share of the vote because on that criterion May was as successful as the two most successful election victors in modern times.
      Corbyn failed badly too. Labour only won 261 seats. Way better than anyone expected but still a major electoral failure.

    • 9 June 2017 at 11:20am
      streetsj says: @ manchegauche
      I'm no Blairite.

    • 9 June 2017 at 2:00pm
      Pottery Barn says: @ streetsj
      In showing such abysmal leadership, Theresa May has become the Duchess of Plaza-Toro:
      In enterprise of martial kind,
      When there was any fighting,
      She led her regiment from behind
      (She found it less exciting).
      But when away her regiment ran,
      Her place was at the fore, O . . .

      Such grandees and gondoliers have lost what credibility they had.

  • 9 June 2017 at 10:11am
    Graucho says:
    Never been so happy about having been so completely wrong about something.

    • 9 June 2017 at 11:08am
      whisperit says: @ Graucho
      Me too! The Tory effort was the worst election campaign I can remember - even ducking out of every large scale debate she could, and with highly sympathetic media, each time she appeared, May was the opposite of strong and stable.

      Instead, she looked like a prototype android realising that it was failing the Turing test.

      And the Tories offered nothing else.

      Labour did well to come up with a detailed programme of alternative, forward-looking policies. They also turned their huge surge in membership to some effect. This was the prospectus Corbyn was elected on, so this result is a major victory for him.

    • 9 June 2017 at 4:13pm
      semitone says: @ whisperit
      The business of major political parties is to win elections, and having won them to enact a policy program they and their supporters agree is good for the country. If that wasn't the prospectus Corbyn was elected on, he shouldn't have run for the leadership.

      Last night was disastrous for the Labour Party on these terms, and a success only in relation to the low bar it set itself in the weeks previous (i.e. to avoid a wipeout).

      After seven years of chaotic and incompetent Tory mismanagement Labour was unable to form a minority government, let alone win a majority vote share or command a Commons majority. That is a major failure any way you slice it.

    • 9 June 2017 at 5:35pm
      whisperit says: @ semitone
      Do you really believe that? The business of political parties - major or minor - is not only to win elections. Sometimes, a party can also be successful and play an invaluable role in opposition, as a organising force in specific campaigns, or in shifting public opinion.

      I won't patronise you by quoting examples - I'm sure you can think of some!

      In this case, Corbyn presented a programe radically at odds with the prevailing wisdom of austerity and isolationism. He faced hostility from the mass media and was attacked relentlessly from within by a large section of the PLP and the New Labour grandees like Mandelson and Blair. Right up to the results this morning, commentators were opining that Labour was on the verge of disintegration; UKIP had captured its White working class base, the unions were in terminal decline; its new membership just Facebook clickers. Opinion polls were telling us that it would get wiped out.

      Despite such hostile conditions, the party captured a vote share higher than any general election since 1970, bar the first two elections of Blair's term. That's not a major failure.

    • 9 June 2017 at 9:02pm
      semitone says: @ whisperit
      Thanks for your response Michael, which is thoughtful and deserves a better reply than I'm likely to give, but I'll have a go. I won't patronise you either.

      I do really believe it. A definition of a smaller or minor party is that it has no hope or intention of forming a Government in its own right, or leading a minority or coalition. It does exactly what you say: it organises campaigns and shifts opinion. My favourite political party, the Australian Greens, do just that (as well as aiming to hold the balance of power in the Upper House). But major parties, like Labour and the Conservatives, exist to form Governments if possible and every election they don't is an election they have lost.

      I'm sure part of the reason this was the most leftwing Tory manifesto since the 70s was Corbyn's perceived vacation of the centre ground. So in that sense he was influential from opposition. But a better example is from Australia: the scare campaign Tony Abbott's Liberals ran against Julia Gillard's proposed resources tax and carbon abatement scheme, which certainly did affect policy from Opposition. The crucial difference is that Abbott ran that scare campaign in order to get elected, and it worked. That's the point.

      To your final point, if you want to set the bar of success as avoiding a wipeout then yes, Labour did handsomely last night. Like the poor, the hostile conditions you list will always be with us. So Labour's task is not to put up a leader who fails only because of those conditions; it is to put up a leader who succeeds in spite of them. I wish them better luck, and better wisdom, next time.

    • 10 June 2017 at 12:04pm
      whisperit says: @ semitone
      Thanks for your considered reply, I appreciate it. I know nothing of the Australian Greens and will look into them forthwith!

    • 10 June 2017 at 5:00pm
      roger gathmann says: @ semitone
      Funny how the narrative changes. First, Corby was going to lead to the worst labour defeat since 1930 - a sort of bogus historical factoid dug up by Jason Cowley, the editor of the New Statesman who wishes he were the editor the Spectator. And May was crushing it. Look at her visiting the Labour districts! Look at Corbyn going on like a teenager about increasing the vote, and those meaningless crowd numbers. And then the absurd Survation poll - have to be an idiot to believe that. Then, somewhere around 3 a.m., the narrative changed a bit. May ran the worst campaign in history! Corbyn promised freebies to gullible young people. And now, of course, it is: Corbyn led the Labour party to a historical defeat! I love this right Labour/tory press flexibiity. As the facts change, their fantasies adopt. In truth, Corbyn inherited a crippled labour party badly in need of a program, and he provided it in this snap election, and helped Labour win 30 seats. It isn't enough, although if SNP hadn't lost so badly in Scotland, we would be much nearer a Labour minority gov. As it is, Corbyn's issues - soft Brexit (Corbyn's managing to make labour appealing across the Remain/Leave divide is precisely what no New Labourite leader could do), a review of privatization, and perhaps even a review of the alliances with dubious authoritarian regimes in the ME (although the latter is probably a dream), and renewed investment in schools - the Tories are on the defensive about all of these things. You can win a victory with an empty program, and rule from it, which seems like what the last Blair/Brown administration was about, or you can lose and in losing bend the nation to your issues, which is what Corbyn just did. The Tories, by embracing DUP, have done the equivalent of shooting themselves in the other foot. Perhaps dislike of Corbyn blinds people to what he has done, but in the sweep of the last twenty years, he's done amazingly well. Better than I thought he'd do, frankly.

  • 9 June 2017 at 12:30pm
    frmurphy98 says:
    Congratulations to Jeremy Corbyn - gentle spirit, but man of iron. No other public figure could have withstood the beatings, smears and misinformation he's had to endure from the media and 'colleagues' over the past two years. Let alone come out the other side to inflict humiliation on the Empress Theresa, the Tories, their tame media, and their hating gimp army of supporters..

    • 9 June 2017 at 4:21pm
      semitone says: @ frmurphy98
      It is a given, in 21st-century British politics, that any candidate for PM Labour puts up will be subject to a character assassination from the right-wing press. Congratulating Corbyn for enduring such slings and arrows and remaining in post but losing the election nevertheless is perverse.

  • 9 June 2017 at 1:07pm
    Joe Morison says:
    Erratum: for 'strong and stable' read 'weak and wobbly'.

    • 10 June 2017 at 3:37am
      Joe Morison says: @ Joe Morison
      Leading to, as a pal texted me back: 'a coalition of chaos'.

    • 10 June 2017 at 12:09pm
      whisperit says: @ Joe Morison
      ...propped up by terrorist extremists

    • 10 June 2017 at 4:24pm
      Joe Morison says: @ whisperit
      Semantics sound, alliteration absent.

  • 9 June 2017 at 2:01pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Theresa May strangely and poignantly reminds me of Mrs Robinson.

    "Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon
    Going to the candidates' debate
    Laugh about it, shout about it
    When you've got to choose
    Every way you look at this you lose

    Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio
    Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you
    What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson
    Jolting Joe has left and gone away..."

  • 10 June 2017 at 3:06am
    nztab says:
    Semitone, if not a full tone out.

  • 11 June 2017 at 8:51am
    John Birchall says:
    For a member of no party, I share with Labour supporters the problem that no one knows whether a more centerist Labour leader would have done better than Corbyn. In almost every case, then, those would prefer a centerist will say 'yes' and the left leaning will say 'not necesssarily'. Therefore the discussions are not very informative. Maybe the data analysts can get closer.
    What is clear to me is that any Labour leader needs a radical, not a cosmetic perceived difference, to diffuse the toxic effect of the Blairite support of military adventures abroad, which overshadow the good things about Blair and his supporters.
    Personally, I think giving the unapologetic socialists a chance might be good for Labour, especially when you look at the success of the 'real' left wing alternatives elsewhere in Europe, and the weaknes of traditional center left parties. I too am guessing.

  • 11 June 2017 at 9:03am
    RobotBoy says:
    The contortions gone through to discredit Corbyn demonstrates the fear that real left-wing populism strikes in financial elites and their lackeys. This of course includes influential figures in Corbyn's own party embarrassed to be associated with the word 'Labour.'
    There is a similar reaction attempt in the U.S. in the catastrophe of the Trump presidency to resurrect Clinton or a centrist like Cuomo, with a complete denial of the reason why Clinton lost in the first place. It's hard not to believe that the DNC would rather see an insider Republican in office than the likes of Bernie Sanders.

  • 11 June 2017 at 10:41pm
    apemantus says:
    Glen Newey said:
    "She failed, into the bargain, to capitalise on the one big unpredictable of the campaign, namely the atrocities in London and Manchester, which should have played to the Tories’ perceived strengths."

    One wonders how May could have capitalized on the Tory "perceived strengths", and perceived by whom?

    It was the Tory government that sold 3.5 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia, with MP's recieving a plethora of perks from Riyadh, then blocked the release of the Home Office inquiry on the funding of terrorism in Britain as "too sensitive".

    It was May that cut 20,000 police officers and referred to the warnings of the Police Federation as "scaremongering" and "crying wolf" and axed 1000 from the border force.

    These facts were readily available. Corbyn had previously promised to hire 10,000 police, saying, "you couldn't have security on the cheap".

  • 13 June 2017 at 4:21pm
    Lashenden says:
    The obligatory damnatio memoriae for the 97-10 Labour administration both saddens me personally and seems increasingly an irrelevant indulgence of the Party's oedipal tendency (a rhetoric that will inevitably be applied to Corbyn in the fullness of time, because that's what Labour does to all it's leaders, without exception.).
    First the caveats - Iraq was iniquitous beyond argument, and with hindsight the collusion with the city was mistaken. But some political memories are short, SO:
    I worked closely with The DfE, DSS and Home Office in various voluntary sector capacities, and what I saw between 1997-2010 was a government that had to completely rebuild the public sector infrastructure of the UK, after 20 years of total neglect, which in many cases constituted literal dereliction. I personally briefed architectural and design practices all over the country where no-one had EVER built a primary school, or a hospital, or a community centre. I also worked with school and hospital staff who, when asked about what they'd ideally like to achieve with their working environment, were so used to working in slum conditions that they could imagine no more than replacing the broken furniture in their classrooms and wards. That the solution to this woeful situation had to involve the pernicious arrangements of PFI and PPP reflects the tenor of times when the triumph of international financial markets seemed unassailable. The whole process was a steep, sometimes, break-neck, learning curve for all concerned, but the results speak for themselves. That the majority of children in the UK currently go to school in decent conditions was a major achievement of the Blair/Brown administration.
    We all know that the Iraq war was disastrous; times have changed radically and Corbyn's localist politics now undoubtedly point to the future. But we could afford be more discriminating the legacy of previous Labour administrations. The British public owe them more than they realise.

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